Honolulu • When Nick Rolovich became the 23rd head coach for Hawaii football, he inherited a program that had won only 11 times in the previous four years. Now, in his fourth season at the helm, Rolovich has led the Rainbow Warriors to their best regular season record (9-5) since 2010, when Hawaii finished 10-3 before losing to Tulsa in that year’s Hawaii Bowl.
The Rainbow Warriors will look to match their best finish in recent history and get their 10th win when they, once again, play in the Hawaii Bowl — this time against BYU.
But how was Rolovich able to turn around the struggling Hawaii program? Simple. He took a page out of his own playbook.
Rolovich was a two-year letter winner at quarterback for Hawaii in 2000 and ’01. He started the bulk of 2001 and helped lead the team to a 9-3 record. Rolovich passed for 4,176 career yards and 40 touchdowns and still holds six school passing records.
The 2001 season also was the last time the Rainbow Warriors beat the Cougars.
“That was an exciting time for Hawaii football,” said BYU support staffer and Hawaii native Jack Damuni. “So, it was right for Hawaii to hire him back because they understood that Rolovich would bring back that same offense that would be successful, which they are today.”
Rolovich's opportunity to take over the program came through another (somewhat) BYU connection.
Norm Chow, who had a 27-year stint at BYU and worked for LaVell Edwards, became the first Asian-American head coach of a major college football program when he took over at Hawaii in December 2011.
Chow, however, didn’t have much success and was fired Nov. 1, 2015, after losing 58-7 against Air Force. During his four years at Hawaii, Chow’s overall coaching record was 10-36.
Offensive line coach Chris Naeole was named interim head coach and wrapped up the final four games of the season. Rolovich took over the program the following month. At the time, he was the fifth-youngest head coach in NCAA Division I FBS at age 37.
BYU VS HAWAII
When • Tuesday, 6 p.m. MST
TV • ESPN
Alema Fitisemanu, a BYU recruiting coordinator who also played on the Cougars’ 1984 championship team, believes that having a former player return to his alma mater as a coach, like Rolovich did, always helps the program.
“They get the university — they know the strengths and weaknesses,” Fitisemanu said. “It is very helpful because sometimes you get a guy from outside and ... he doesn’t know the community. He’s starting flat-footed; he doesn’t really get the nuances or how to build the relationships. But that’s one of [Rolovich’s] strengths — he’s been there before.”
Rolovich saw immediate success. In his first season, he coached Hawaii to a bowl game for the first time in six years and finished 7-7 overall.
Then the Rainbow Warriors saw a dip in production, finishing the 2017 campaign with a 3-9 record.
Last year, however, Hawaii saw a true resurgence of the formerly famed run-and-shoot offense — the same one Rolovich used as a player almost two decades ago — and got back to winning.
“Same type of offense — high-powered, high-scoring, lights out, throw the ball down the field and let your best players, let your athletes go get the ball,” Damuni said. “And that’s the kind of offense he’s running at the university right now, which is great for the island and is great for the high school students to see.”
Of course, it also helps that Rolovich has talented players to implement the the Hawaii offense of the old days.
Redshirt junior Cole McDonald is having his second consecutive 3,000-yard passing season. Last year, McDonald threw for 3,875 yards and 36 touchdowns. This season, McDonald has thrown for 3,642 yards and 29 touchdowns on 64% passing.
“Rolo’s always been a great culture guy, so he knows how to build culture,” Fitisemanu said. “And he’s always had a great offensive mind. So, between those two things, you can win in Hawaii.”
As far as where Rolovich’s career will lead, Damuni believes the Hawaii coach will continue having success and may be poached by another program down the line. As an island boy himself, Damuni would love to see Rolovich remain in Hawaii and help give local talent a reason to stay and represent their local school.
“A lot of schools are going to come calling for him because he’s a great coach and that’s what they like to see,” Damuni said. “It’s all about high-powered offense and he’s doing it with players from the junior college level. People are going to realize what he can do with three-star, four-star or five-star players. And then they’ll come calling, but I really think he has the opportunity to stay in Hawaii as long as he’d like because he’s a successful coach. Everybody’s going to want to play for Rolo, but it’s really going to depend on him if he wants to stay.”